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Tackling malnutrition: A team effort in Senegal

In Matam, Senegal, Action Against Hunger works with mothers, midwives, and youth educators to break the hunger cycle.
Photos: Andrew Parsons for Action Against Hunger, Senegal

 

Despite being one of the most stable economies in West Africa, Senegal continues to suffer from high rates of poverty, unemployment, and high rates of maternal and infant mortality, malaria and other diseases. Action Against Hunger has been expanding its programs and activities outside the country’s capital city, Dakar, and recently launched new initiatives in the northeastern region of Matam, where our teams are focused on helping mothers, mothers-to-be, and their kids grow up strong and healthy.

In Matam’s arid climate, hunger is a vicious cycle: too often, it is passed down from generation to generation. When a mother faces hunger, her children are more likely to be born underweight. Those low birth weight babies are likely to grow up with hunger and become stunted children, experiencing life-long consequences in their brain development – and then, in turn, become malnourished adults.

Breaking the intergenerational hunger cycle takes creativity and commitment from all areas. That’s why, across the Matam region, Action Against Hunger trains midwives and health workers to screen, diagnose and treat malnourished children. We also support six intensive care units for malnourished children with complications – providing medicine, ready-to-use therapeutic food, and equipment. Working with hospital staff and peer educators, we educate adolescents on good nutrition, the importance of breastfeeding, and birth spacing.

 

Midwife Madame Seck (middle, in green) with mothers at the health center in Matam, Senegal.

CALL MADAME SECK, THE MIDWIFE

For Madame Seck, being a midwife is a calling. Along with other midwives in Matam, an arid region in northeastern Senegal, she has dedicated her professional life to breaking the vicious intergenerational circle of life-threatening malnutrition.

“Early pregnancies are a challenge here in Matam,” she says. “Many girls marry when they are still very young. Often, they drop out of school when they become pregnant. The younger a girl is when she becomes pregnant, the greater the risks to her and her baby’s health. From April to June, 3 in 4 moms giving birth to low-weight children in Matam were under 24 years old. This is why adolescent girls need special care and support.”

Madame Seck supports moms-to-be and young mothers during and after their pregnancies so that they and their children can be healthy. She advises them to see her for their monthly check-ups, provides advice on how to diversify their diets, and encourages them to breastfeed exclusively within their baby’s first six months of life. She also works closely with youth peer educators to teach teenagers about family planning and confidential services on nutrition and health.

“We must work across the health, community, and education sectors to provide information and support to adolescents to that they can learn about reproductive health and good nutrition. By empowering them to make their own decisions on when and how many children they have, and providing them with the information they need to look after themselves during pregnancy, we can tackle malnutrition head on.”

 

From left to right: Peer Educators Oumou Kari Agne (23), Kadja Ndiaye (20), Awa Thioye (21), Abdoulaye Traore (22), and Arona Diawo (26) at a youth advice center in Matam, where young people can learn about family planning.

 

“WE HELP EVERYONE WHO WANTS TO TALK TO US”

For teenagers in Matam, information about topics like family planning, reproductive health, and nutrition is not readily available—there are no sexual education or home economics classes in the curriculum. But a group of passionate, determined young volunteers is working to change that: they’re helping to transform the lives of their friends and peers by training, educating and raising awareness about reproductive health.

From their enthusiasm and open smiles, it is easy to see why Arona, Awa, Abdoulaye, Kadja and Oumou have been selected as volunteer peer educators. They support each other emotionally, practically, and are comfortable discussing often sensitive topics with their friends.

“Complications from teen pregnancy, premature childbirth, unsafe abortion and sexually-transmitted diseases are a huge problem here,” explains Arona, a peer educator who was trained at the Youth Advice Center in Matam. “Yet many of our peers do not have access to the information and services they need to make their own choices about healthcare, family planning and marriage. If they had more information they could plan their futures accordingly.”

Peer educators receive in-depth training from fellow peers, midwives like Madame Seck, and social workers. Together, they serve as role models for change and are helping to create brighter futures for their community.

 

Young women sign in at family planning lesson taught by peer educators at a youth advice center in Matam, Senegal.

 

The training portfolio is growing to help peer educators do even more good in their communities: Action Against Hunger will soon be working with peer educators to develop an educational program on nutrition so young people can learn more about the benefits of birth spacing and delaying pregnancies, as well as the importance of healthy habits and good nutrition during pregnancy.

“I was a scout before becoming a peer educator,” says Abdoulaye. “My friends used to ask me lots of questions about contraception and sexual health but I did not know how to answer their questions. Many of my peers have kids when they themselves are still very young. We do not learn about these topics at school. I was curious to find out more and came to the Youth Advice Center and this is how I became a peer educator. I want to share my knowledge with my friends.”

Education on issues like safe sexual practice, HIV, early marriage, and pregnancy draws on the credibility and trust that young people have with their peers, leverages the power of role modeling, and provides flexibility in meeting the diverse needs of adolescents in Matam.

“We received a lot of training,” says Awa. “We prepare each session together as a group. We have become really good friends, people trust us because they know that everything they share with us is confidential and we do not discriminate – we help everyone who wants to talk to us. Our priority is to make everyone feel at ease. Only then can we help others.”

 

Action Against Hunger midwife, Sophie Faye, sits with mothers and their children after teaching a nutrition class at the Matam Health Center.

 

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